If Pixar’s “Toy Story” films have taught us anything it’s that having toys that come to life is awesome. Writer Glen Brunswick (“Jersey Gods”) and artist Whilce Portacio (“Incredible Hulk”) have a much different point of view on the subject, one they will explore in the four-issue Image Comics miniseries “Non-Humans.” In the new October-launching series, announced just today at Comic-Con International in San Diego, a NASA probe crashes back to Earth bringing with it a disease that allows people to inadvertently grant inanimate objects like toys, action figures and CPR dummies life.
The story picks up 26 years after the event and follows the exploits of a series of characters as they deal with this strange new world. One of the larger factors dealt with in the series revolves around exactly what kind of rights Non-Humans have considering they are, in a way, born from humans. To get the lowdown on this philosophical discussion, the origins of their partnership and the series’ “Blade Runner”-meets-“Toy Story” description, CBR News spoke to both Brunswick and Portacio about “Non-Humans.”
CBR News: The “Blade Runner” meets “Toy Story” idea might be one of the best ones I’ve heard in a long time. How do those two ideas play together as the story begins?
Glen Brunswick: The inciting incident or event happens three years from now in 2015 — A NASA probe brings back a strange disease that infects the entire globe causing a huge number of familiar toy and toy-like objects to come to life. The action takes place in 2041 — after the Non-Humans have been living among us for twenty-six years.
One of the basic questions that “Blade Runner” asks is, “Are androids actual beings or merely constructs?” It leaves the viewer with plenty of misgivings about whether or not society has the right to eliminate them — perhaps, in fact, they are too human to kill. Non-Humans are created much in the way that a human mother gives birth to her child. That is to say that they come from us — the stuff or DNA of our brains. Somehow our personal traits are combined with a spark of life that allows our toys to become sentient. In effect, these live toys are even more human than androids since they actually are a reproductive product of us. Which begs the question, “Does society have the right to eliminate a new partly human life form if it may pose a threat to society?” A good number of Non-Humans are full of anger and violence — they are deemed a threat. Under these circumstances, the police are ordered to hunt them down and destroy them. On the other hand, some Non-Humans function quite well in society — once they are registered they are allowed the limited rights of an oppressed minority.
How did you two hook up to work on this book? Did one bring the idea to the other or was it something you guys came up with together?
Brunswick: The initial concept was brought to me by a very talented writer friend of mine, Noah Dorsey. What Noah had that impressed me about this idea was the notion that this new life form actually comes from inside of us. It’s a very unique twist that I felt could really be exploited well, dramatically. Noah’s got a ton of bright ideas — I’m certain that Marvel or DC will be snatching him away from me if they’re lucky — but I plan on putting up a pretty good fight to keep him under wraps.
I fashioned our basic concept into a full length treatment that I gave to Whilce — we had been talking about doing some kind of thing together. Whilce immediately responded to the idea. He turned into a creative juggernaut bringing to life a visual template that really feels as if it could exist. Part of the challenge of this kind of story is creating something that allows for readers to suspend their disbelief. This is where Whilce excels in the very best way — creating realistic futuristic vehicles, weapons, structures and a whole new race of living toys that feel like they could fit right in to our world. All of his designs show a HUGE amount of thought — it’s not just about the look. Whilce wants for his creations to look as if they actually might function. As a writer, you couldn’t ask for more. Getting Whilce to work on my book feels like winning the lottery. I’ve been a huge fan, ever since his legendary Heroes Reborn “Iron Man” run. Whilce had his choice of projects for his return to creator-owned books. I’m just grateful that he chose to do this one with me. We’ll be putting quite a few of Whilce’s designs on our process blog. It’s truly neat to see where his vision began and how far he’s taken it now.
Whilce Portacio: What attracts me to Glen’s style is he is great at establishing a strong premise that instantly evokes images in peoples’ minds and that invokes me to ask a lot of ‘world building’ questions. At my core as a creative I am immersed in Science Fiction and world building. Glen has the confidence to create such a solid premise that allows me to fill in all the details visually, to make this world live and breathe. In fact, throughout we have had hours and hours of conversations just building all the societal structures, how and why they would react to Non-Humans. What would society allow or not allow Non-Humans to do. Even their religion of sorts. We even figured out a philosophy they would naturally develop because of their experiences. We also built layers of different classes of Non-Humans and how they would implant themselves into society. We have so much background that the hardest thing was to edit out what we didn’t need at the moment to tell the core story. But if you look at the book and read the script carefully you will see we hint at everything. We meshed so well in building this world we could go for years telling varying stories of how our humans and Non-Humans live and survive.
On the Non-Human side of things, what kind of characters will be taking center stage? How are they treated by humanity?
Brunswick: There are so many fun characters. One that’s become a favorite is Buddy-The-Bear. Initially, he was a cute teddy bear that through his empathetic nature gets us to feel for the Non-Humans. But I decided it might be fun to play him against type so we changed him into the local drug dealer in East L.A. Whilce absolutely nailed the design. It’s so good that it’s made me rethink enlarging Buddy’s role in the book. Then there’s Humphrey — he’s a major villain — a ventriloquist puppet turned serial killer. And there’s a love interest that used to be a Victoria’s Secret Mannequin who happens to live with a Goth doll girlfriend and a child’s electronic dog that’s managed to use spare parts to turn herself into a full size female robot. She developed solely from another completely cool Portacio design. There are just too many to mention them all. Humanity sees the Non-Humans mostly as undesirable outcasts — a new minority to be shunned. They have to hustle using their wits to survive from day to day. Their role is similar or even slightly worse then the very poor in our society. But at least in our world people are willing to help the poor. Non-Humans are generally afforded no such courtesy.
Portacio: My favorite character is the natural relationships Glen has woven for the whole story. There are so many scenes that are short because a comic book can’t have ten million pages. Glen not only nails each scene with a biting spot on remark, but then constantly reinforces those thoughts and themes in subsequent moments.
One question this premise brings to mind is how the former toy Non-Humans interact with their former owners. That must be a strange relationship.
Brunswick: Like a few fortunate slaves in the old South, some Non-Humans are treated well — like family. The vast majority are not. They are feared and ostracized whether the reasons are legitimate or not. Part of the problem is exacerbated by the Non-Humans themselves. Generally speaking, Non-Humans are created by adolescents — kids that tend to be less secure that have only begun to discover who they are. As a result, a fair percentage of Non-Humans tend to be violent and full of rage at the time of their creation. Once formed, they strike out with a desire to kill the human being that created them. This of course destroys any possible bond they may have had with their human family. These kinds of Non-Humans become more of a major threat as our tale progresses. Laws are created to put the entire adolescent human population on drugs in order to curb their ability to continue to create Non-Humans — this is a world where the entire youth culture is legally checked out on drugs.
Portacio: Another aspect of Non-Human life that is wonderfully explored here is that since a part of a child’s consciousness is imparted to Non-Humans, a lot of them have this inner desire to be accepted by humans. Funny, because since a lot of these Non-Humans are small toys we came up with this mechanism for small toys to become human sized by attaching themselves to mannequins. So that got us thinking that there might be a hierarchy of Non-Humans where mannequins and human looking toys would be desired.
We’ve talked a lot about the Non-Humans and their relationships with humans and how difficult that can be, but what humans will be featured in the series?
Brunswick: The main human character, Oliver Aimes, is a Los Angeles police detective on his way to a crime scene connected to the Non-Human serial killer that murdered his former partner. He’s driven by dark demons in his past that continue to fuel his hatred toward the Non-Humans. The story plays out like a character-driven thriller with many unexpected turns. Throughout his journey, Aimes will have obstacles thrown at him from every direction that will challenge his perception of Non-Humans causing him to eventually see things in a different light. He’s newly partnered and at odds with the only female detective on the force that is a supporter of Non-Human rights, he’s dogged every other step by Medic, a Non-Human that once was a medical dummy, who is the only Non-Human detective on the job, and if that’s not enough, he just found out that his son is dating, and is in love with, a Non-Human.
Portacio: The real amazing thing is once you get through the whole story you find a wonderful weaving of relationships and their underlying emotions all forming naturally to create a wondrous way to introduce you all to our world.
Were there specific real life toys you wanted to base the ones in “Non-Humans” on? From a design standpoint, was it difficult tweaking existing characters so that they looked original but also familiar enough to trigger some memories in the reader?
Brunswick: This is really more Whilce’s department, but the idea was to try and come up with toys that weren’t under license to major corporations. I was also thinking it would be nice to come up with something new. The last thing we wanted was to have Superman and Spider-Man toys running around our world.
Portacio: Toys have been such an integral part of human society since forever that even in this modern age of electronic gadgets, toys in general conjure up large general thoughts and feelings. So it was mostly a matter of figuring out what kind of a character we needed and filling it visually with a basic toy concept we are familiar with. Like, we have a character named Captain Valor. His name alone and his basic design lets you instantly understand that he is an action figure without me having to resort to almost copying an existing toy design. Plus Glen litters the script with typical phrases like ‘Hey, I use to have a Pirate Sam just like you’. Now there never was a Pirate Sam but you instantly get the idea. Visually working with toys and our already set notions of toys was a constant minefield of ideas to explore visually.
Do you see opportunity for more Non-Humans stories after this first one if everything goes well?
Brunswick: We’ve had so much fun creating and playing in this world that I think we would be sorry to leave it after only one initial four-issue arc is done. Whilce has put so much work into this thing visually and I think we’ve all done a terrific bit of world building here. I’d be really surprised if we didn’t pick this up again. There’s still so much more I think we can do with this — for us, it’s become a thoroughly engaging tale to tell!
Portacio: We’ve built out the structure of this world so thoroughly and since toys alone as a concept carries such vast ideas and thoughts and especially the idea of toys as a human-like minority is such a broad topic that touches so much human experience — I would think that with all of that combined we could then launch an anthology book that could launch countless other characters and story lines.
“Non-Humans” begins October 3rd from Image Comics.